Emma (2009) on Masterpiece Classic – Miss Woodhouse, a Nonsensical Girl!

From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

A new television adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma written by Sandy Welch premiered on Masterpiece Classic last night. It may very well be the last Jane Austen adaptation (or any other bonnet drama) that we see on television for quite some time. The BBC is feigning Austen fatigue after years of milking the almighty cash cow. Since 2005 we have been treated to a new major movie or television production of each of Jane Austen’s six major novels. Emma (2009) completes the set. Time to bring on the reality television and grittier fare. So speaketh Auntie Beeb. Because of their partnership with the BBC, Masterpiece PBS is hooked into their decisions too, though I suspect with more regret than they will admit since Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton remarked last week “We are not stupid: Jane Austen is catnip to our audience.”

Beautiful, Beautiful Production Values

This new Emma has almost everything that this bonnet drama geek could hope for in an Austen film adaptation: four hours to develop the story to its fullest, beautiful, beautiful production values, a seasoned and award-winning screenwriter and a cast dappled with some of Britain’s finest veteran actors and up and coming stars. What’s not to like? How could it go wrong? Let me extol upon its many charms and a few foibles.

Handsome, Clever, and Rich

As host Laura Linney began her introduction, I was waiting for her to pop in Jane Austen’s famous ironic remark about Emma Woodhouse, “a heroine no one but myself will much like.” She did not disappoint. Over the centuries Emma has had her share of advocates and adversaries. She is actually a bit of a pill. Handsome, clever and rich with nothing to vex her, she is not one of Austen’s typical financially challenged heroines. Therein lies the rub. We are not in the least sympathetic to her situation, and in fact, quite annoyed by her self-deluded notions of merrily matchmaking for her friends with disastrous results. In the three previous adaptations of Emma, we have seen her portrayed as an elegant toffee-nosed snob by Doran Godwin in 1972, an immature busybody by Kate Beckinsale (1996), and a mischievous altruist by Gwyneth Paltrow, also in (1996). Now Romola Garai has been passed the baton and plays it close to Austen’s intensions, but with thrice the emotion.

A Gifted Production Team & Stately Regency-Era Homes

Emma (2009) might just surpass the venerable 1995 Pride and Prejudice in superior production values. It is a visual delight, skillfully crafted by a gifted production team of designer Stevie Herbert and art director Pilar Foy. Bravo. The stately Regency-era homes chosen to stand-in for the Woodhouse estate of Hartfield (Squerryes Court, Kent), Mr. Knightley’s residence at Donwell Abbey (Loseley Park, Guildford, Surrey) and the village of Highbury (Chilham, Kent) elegantly and historically set the stage for all of the other production elements.

Stunning Frocks, Disappointing Bonnets

The costumes designed by Rosalind Ebbutt may not have been completely period accurate as to color, but the coordination of color schemes to the set of actors in a scene and within the room it was filmed in was stunning. I particularly appreciated Emma Woodhouse’s lovely pale coral evening gown and Harriet Smith’s virginally white frock at the Crown Inn Ball. Ebbutt has a keen eye for accessories and her use of jewelry and shawls was striking, but sadly I was quite disappointed in the bonnets which tended to be too droopy and not quite as refined and highly fashioned as one would wish. Highbury is in the country, but the elegant Miss Woodhouse can still be allowed a bit of London millinery foppery. The gentleman’s attire was tolerable, though I admit to feeling more than a bit embarrassed by the cut of Mr. Knightley’s waistcoat in one scene that made him look rather like he was twelve and in need of ten years to grow into it. Many of the actors have director of photography Adam Suschitzky to thank for making them look glowingly elegant and refined. Ladies never look so fine as by candle light and the interior evening scenes of the Woodhouse dinner party, the Christmas eve dinner at Randalls, and the Ball at the Crown Inn were particularly flattering.

A Reversal of First Impressions on Casting

When I read the original casting announcements I was a bit surprised by some of the choices. I had been rooting for Richard Armitage as Mr. Knightley and could envision no other in his stead. When the part was given to Jonny Lee Miller, I was crestfallen. On the other hand, I was pleased by the selection of Romola Garai as Miss Woodhouse. I had enjoyed her performances in I Capture the Castle and Atonement and thought her a talented young actress. Interestingly, I would change my position on each of the leads, resisting Miller at first, then growing to admire his comedic timing while accepting Garai immediately until her overplay of emotion with eye popping and exaggerated facial expressions was totally distracting. I will admit though, that she did improve upon acquaintance. As Miss Woodhouse matured through the course of the narrative, so did my respect for her.

Secondary Characters Shine

Among the secondary characters that stood out most in this large ensemble cast was Louise Dylan as Emma’s dear friend and plaything Harriet Smith. Happily she did not play Harriet as a complete airhead as we have seen in the past by Toni Collette in the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version. I am Miss Smith’s warmest admirer of her character in the novel and always cast a critical eye on her portrayal in adaptations. Ms. Dylan filled the part emotionally, but she looked a tad bit more than 17 to Romola who did not look 21 either, so there you have it. On the comedy/tragedy front Tamsin Greig’s interpretation of the garrulous Miss Bates was really heart wrenching to experience in opposition to the ditzy and dotty versions by Sophie Thompson or Prunella Scales in the two 1996 Emma productions. She made me cry at the Box Hill picnic scene. You could really feel her fear and trepidation as a spinster living in genteel poverty at the mercy of the kindness of her neighbors the Woodhouse’s and Mr. Knightey. Blake Ritson gave us a Mr. Elton that I had not thought possible, but I enjoyed. Austen had described him as handsome, which Mr. Ritson certainly is, but I had thought of him as more of a toad than a suave charmer.

Some Casting Missteps

My greatest disappointments in characterization were Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Michael Gambon who portrayed Mr. Woodhouse is a legend. He was given little to say and looked way too healthy for the part of a valetudinarian who is frightened by a piece of cake. Christina Cole as the vulgar Mrs. Elton missed the mark completely. Since social rank in marriage was everything in Regency society, she is far too pretty to play a rich woman who would accept a country vicar as a husband. In addition, her delivery of some of Austen’s most brilliantly biting lines was decidedly flat. Laura Pyper as the reserved Miss Jane Fairfax was a beautiful and accomplished foil for Miss Woodhouse, but too demure for my sensibilities. I liked Olivia William’s edgier kettle ready to boil over containment in the 1996 version. Ah Frank Churchill. Rupert Evans looked the part and spoke the part, but he did not live the part. No one in my estimation has yet to fill those boots with enough oozing charm and decided deception.

A Different Tone and Energy Level than Austen’s Original

Now for the cream as Emma says to Harriet. Was this a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s masterpiece of characterization and biting social commentary? Hardly. Screenwriter Sandy Welch has taken the bones of Austen’s brilliant story and padded it with her own words. Very little of Austen’s amazing language remains. A few quotes here and there, but this is entirely her own imagining. Director Jim O’Hanlon has built upon that premise and interjected a totally different tone and energy to Austen’s original subtle and underplayed story that some of her adversaries have said is about nothing. Possibly they felt it was also about nothing and needed to modernize it with heightened emotion and darker depths.

Going Their Own Way

Austen revealed in the first chapter of Emma that ‘The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way.’ Ironically, this Emma could have been perfection if the screenwriter and director had heeded Miss Austen’s warning and not used their power to go their own way. As Austen adaptations go, this nonsensical Emma is the best of the last six supplied, but I still feel we have a way to go in interpreting Austen faithfully to the screen. Was it enjoyable? Certainly. Will I watch it again? Without hesitation.

4 out of 5 Stars


We received an advance DVD screener from the producer in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Images used by permission from Masterpiece PBS © 2009; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, austenprose.com.

31 thoughts on “Emma (2009) on Masterpiece Classic – Miss Woodhouse, a Nonsensical Girl!

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  1. I will never understand the conceit of writers who think their words superior to Austen’s. I was, in turn, annoyed and revolted. An hour and a bit in, I fell asleep. I shall not be watching the rest of this terrible adaptation. Sorry to be so negative, but there it is. Whatever that thing was, it wasn’t “Emma”!


  2. I tend to agree with all your assessment Laurel, especially about the script. I was very disappointed by the lack of Austen dialogue and the alteration of characters. Miss Bates glum and not talkative?Hmm… don’t think so.


  3. Wow, what an amazing review. I am less critical simply because I am appreiciative of a program I looked forward (an do look forward to next week) to.


  4. Laurel Ann, you’ve encapsulated the pros and cons of this film so well. I have only seen the first 2 hours so far, but I nodded my way through your entire review. I’m enjoying it overall, largely because Jonny Lee Miller has totally won my heart in this role. (How delightful he is!! I believe him as Knightly.) I’m less fond of Romola Garai’s constant eye popping, though. It *is* distracting. And, yeah, Frank C. and Jane F. aren’t nearly as intriguing as I’d hoped. Still, I’m looking forward to watching the rest and am quite curious about this Mrs. Elton…


  5. Excellent review. Overall, I did enjoy the show though, like every adaptation, it wasn’t without its flaws. Emma has always been my favourite Austen book and, it must be said, she has always been my favourite heroine. As much as I love Romola Garai (and I do), the eye-popping was embarassing to watch. She is so much better than that and I know they were consciously trying to incorporate modern mannerisms but really? That was how they chose to do it? I don’t blame her so much as the director for that particular lapse. And as much as I love Michael Gambon, he does tend to dominate any scene he’s in (though I love him for it) and as such is rather unsuitable as Mr Woodhouse.


  6. Part I is resting comfortably on my DVR awaiting my viewing…now I really can’t wait! What a terrific, insightful, thoughtful review–you have outdone yourself.

    I did only scan the negative parts as I don’t want to be predisposed not to like certain bits, and will reread more carefully after I’ve watched the video.

    I really liked your summation of the other Emma adaptations:
    “In the three previous adaptations of Emma, we have seen her portrayed as an elegant toffee-nosed snob by Doran Godwin in 1972, an immature busybody by Kate Beckinsale and a mischievous altruist by Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996.”

    You whet my appetite for the new Emma, one of the best heroines ever and my personal role model :)


  7. I enjoyed this one – but it’s been awhile since I’ve seen any adaptation of Emma. I did think the eye-popping was a bit much – even Alicia Silverstone was more subtle in Clueless!

    I did find it interesting that two gentlemen who have played Edmund in two different adaptations of Mansfield Park would be in the same Emma production: Jonny Lee Miller in the 1999 version and Blake Ritson in the 2007 version.

    All the different interconnections make the watching all the more intriguing to me!


  8. Hi Laurel Ann – thanks for an excellent review. I’m looking forward to seeing the next two episodes. (And I think you were spot-on with your description of Tamsin Greig. She is so much better than previous actresses in this role.)

    I had a question about your calling Emma Austen’s “masterpiece” – I certainly believe that her characterizations and commentary were much stronger here than in other novels, but I have never heard Emma described as Austen’s masterpiece so I’m curious – is that your assessment or is that something the Janeite world in general accepts?

    (I’ll admit that I know the least about Emma b/c I’ve always preferred the author novels, so please, educate me!)


  9. Laurel Ann – a lovely review! I chose not to read any reviews until I had posted my own [really a list of random thoughts] so as not to be swayed away from my initial thoughts – but I see now that we are of two minds [and also discover how many reviews are out there! – you would think that the whole world was glued to their television on Sunday night!] – I know you have seen the entire film, so appreciate your comments on the other characters – sorry to find that Frank Churchill disappoints you – he is such a pivotal character, but we already know too soon that he is suspect. Who do you think could play that role? [I thought that Ewan McGregor [who I love] was too swarmy…]

    So thanks as always for a very thoughtful fleshed out review! I agree, that even with all the faults, and being far enough away from Austen to actually warrant a “based loosely on Jane Austen’s Emma” notice, I will watch this again and again with a smile on my face the whole time [I am so easliy entertained…]


  10. “The BBC is feigning Austen fatigue after years of milking the almighty cash cow. ”

    Excellent statement, Laurel Ann. Jane was certainly good to the BBC and PBS. Our Twitter Party last Sunday confirmed it. I don’t know how many people participated during those two hours, but from their enthusiasm, this is no time to stop making Bonnet movies.

    I totally love your description of Emma. Having watched the film yet again, I am struck by how closely she follows the character as Jane wrote her, but with three times the emotion.

    None of the adaptations have adequately presented Frank Churchill, and this one is no exception. While I like this film, which holds up under repeated viewing, I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in Sandy Welch’s script. Honestly, this production should have been called, Emma, by Sandy Welch, as inspired by Jane Austen.

    As for the film’s production values and music – they are outstanding. As usual, I am late to the party, but I find that I agree with much of your opinion about the film. Great review!


  11. I wish Armitage had been Mr. Knightley as well! I hope that bonnet movies won’t be absent too long. They’re always my favorites. I enjoyed the first two hours of the Twitter party, and I’m definitely looking forward to more.


  12. Great review. I loved it! Went right to pre-order the DVD after seeing the finale last night. Emma is selling well at Amazon (in the top 10). Clearly people besides those of us who live and breathe this stuff enjoyed it. Am hoping PBS will take heed and trump the new BBC drama commissioner when it comes to “bonnet dramas”, at least when it comes to American co-productions. I mean, after all, Little Dorrit just won 7 Emmys!


  13. I wanted to give Jane Austen fans, and especially fans of “Emma”, a heads up that the U.S.’s Masterpiece Classics broadcast has been edited to be shorter than that shown in the UK. I was fortunate enough to watch the UK version several months ago. When I watched the last episode tonight on PBS in HD, I recognized missing scenes. I was not happy that 10 minutes, including a good scene between Emma and Knightley, were edited out. I can only assume that this was done so that PBS/Masterpiece Classics could have 10 minutes at the end to show ads.

    When the DVD comes out in the U.S., I sincerely hope the DVD contains the UK uncut version. I’ve tried to find information regarding this, but nothing so far. And I hope there’s a high definition version because there is a definite difference in picture quality between the standard UK version that I saw and the HD PBS one.

    To PBS for cutting “Emma” short: Badly done.


    1. I believe, but am not 100% certain, that the U.S. release of the DVD does contain the additional scenes. The PBS website is selling what they are calling an “uncut” version of the show, with “10 additional minutes.” It comes on 2 discs and runs at 229 minutes.

      Amazon is also selling a 2-disc, 229 minute DVD, which I assume is the same, though it doesn’t say that it’s uncut or with additional scenes.

      Hope that helps!


  14. An excellent summation of what I also pretty much felt about this adaptation of Emma. Costuming was lovely although, as stated, not really period-accurate; cinematography was superb. I also disliked the over-emotionalizing of Emma’s character and 21st-century-ish overlay in terms of script and characters thinking out loud. I felt that Johnny Lee Miller was not the best Mr. Knightley – too handsome and looks too young – but he grew on me, as did Romola Garai. I loved Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse – just because one is a valetudinarian does not mean one must look feeble; it bears remembering that much of Mr. Woodhouse’s “health issues” were in his mind – perhaps anxiety, perhaps related to past losses of wife and other loved ones earlier in his life – this is unknown. Jane Fairfax’s character did come across as too demure – hard to believe such a one as she would contract a secret engagement. Rupert Evans as Frank Churchill I found frankly irritating! I haven’t seen the Gwyneth Paltrow version; I’m now anxious to see this to compare with other versions. I agree with all of you that EMMA has yet to be portrayed in film as Jane Austen writes it.


  15. I thought it was a fantastic adaptation of Emma. Romola Garai was not only captivating as Emma, but was so lovable and haunting beautiful. I thought both Mr.Woodhouse and Mr.Knightley were perfectly casted. My favorite scene was when Emma was getting ready to go on her honeymoon.
    That was such a touching scene between Emma and her father.
    I could feel the emotions between the two of them, and it was exceptionally poignant. I’m a dad with a daughter getting married and that scene hit home.
    I purchased this on DVD and watched it again with my daughter the other night. I will watch it over and over again.
    Well done PBS!!!!!!!!!!


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